Happy 25th Birthday to my oldest son. Sadly, we didn’t celebrate together – once again.
That’s because he’s still behind bars – caught in a revolving door of incarceration. Desperately wanting freedom yet unable to stay out of trouble.
His dilemma is all too common for young adults who didn’t have a fair start in life.
In my son’s case, he was neglected shortly after birth. For the next seven years, he was physically and emotional abused. The resulting PTSD made relationships with others difficult. Zero trust.
As his defiance grew, a psychiatrist diagnosed him with Conduct Disorder. Then Reactive Attachment Disorder – meaning he couldn’t truly bond with anyone.
Looking back 15 years ago, I thought my adoption could save him. After all, he was an innocent 10-year-old boy.
How I tried. How many in the community tried.
Unfortunately, treating early childhood trauma is extremely difficult. Healing is easier said than done, especially when children go to incredible lengths to control everything in their lives – rather than trust any adults with their care.
In my son’s constant state of arousal and dysregulation, control meant survival. Not being hurt again. Accepting my firm yet compassionate approach wasn’t an option.
Much less my love.
The anxiety that riddled him was intense. He chewed on his clothes without realizing it. Open spaces with high ceilings terrified him. Within seconds his movements froze – like his emotional development years before.
At our wonderful elementary school, several committed trauma-sensitive teachers seemed to reach him. He felt safe. In turn, he did exceptional work.
At home, however, he kept his distance. Reading dozens of books to escape. Telling jokes with amazing wit to avoid real conversation.
Yet the chaos of middle school proved overwhelming. Too many teachers all with a different approach. They backed him into a corner – triggering past shame. He shut down completely and wouldn’t – or couldn’t – respond to rational redirection.
His short-lived success unraveled.
As a result a plethora of ugly emotions overflowed every day at home over the simplest of requests. Like sweeping the garage. Even coming to table for dinner. Time and time again, he appeared to be sabotaging his own success – because deep down he never felt whole. Not worthy of the good in life.
Eventually, my son was labeled a trouble-maker. That’s when his anger grew exponentially.
Feeling like a misfit will do that.
When my son’s propensity to use his fists landed him in the juvenile justice system, some officials fell for his unassuming charm. They looked for someone to blame – rather than accepting his personal history and confronting the devastating effects of early trauma. And his many fears. Pointing the finger at me was easy.
By doing so, they empowered my teenage son in the worst way.
Soon my son pitted adults against me – convinced that he had won. In the trauma community, it’s called triangulation (open link for more). As the false allegations mounted, he needed to hear a consistent message from authority figures about responsibility and accountability.
But the mixed signals continued.
Meanwhile, my son’s progress didn’t stall. It digressed. Before long he had dug a hole too deep to climb. And with expensive, intensive treatment not producing desired outcomes, no judge would authorize any more money.
The “game” was over.
Off to juvenile prison my son went. There his behaviors escalated amid a culture of disrespect. Appropriate peer role models were non-existent.
In reality the game never started. Over a five-year period, no mental health provider or residential facility fully understood the importance of trauma-informed, attachment-focused and family-involved therapy.
Today I suspect that my son was also exposed to alcohol in the womb. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and the resulting brain damage would further explain his gross inability to learn from mistakes.
Upon release from prison at 19, my son remained his own worst enemy. Unable to relate to people, he found comfort in drugs – any readily available substance to get high. Soon he became an addict. Arrest upon arrest. Not surprisingly, his most recent prison sentence involved a drug deal gone wrong. Thankfully no one died.
Yet I still have hope.
Two years ago we almost turned the corner. My son accepted my invitation to stay with me. That’s when he finally opened up to me about his drug problem. We talked. I mean really talked about his insecurities, mis-perceptions and regrets. And his unrelenting anger while living in my home.
After two weeks of positive connections, he abruptly left late one night – needing another fix more than family.
No doubt, his co-occurring mental health issues – trauma and addiction – will be extremely hard to overcome.
So I send you this birthday wish, my son Alex.
Be strong in spirit. Be reflective in heart. Be mindful that the road to freedom begins with you. And for now, let those three choices be the only ones you seek to control.
With forgiveness and unconditional love, I will be waiting. DCP
Craig Peterson publishes EACH Child every Tuesday. To subscribe, open this link and “Like” the page. EACH Child is Special: Working Smarter Not Harder to Raise Every ONE
To follow Craig’s journey in raising his six children with special needs, click here: Adopting Faith: A Father’s Unconditional Love
To follow my son Andrew’s inspiring story, “Like” his special Facebook page Andrew Peterson Goes for the Gold